Education a big winner in governor's proposed Pa. budget

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Feb. 12—Gov. Josh Shapiro is going all in with his support for public education in Pennsylvania.

Standing on the stairs inside the atrium of the state Capitol Tuesday afternoon, the Montgomery County Democrat presented the Legislature with his vision of the state's 2024-25 budget.

And education funding took center stage, with Shapiro proposing an overall $1.7 billion increase in education funding.

"We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do right by our kids," he said. "Let's seize this moment. If we do this right, we will not only set our young people up for individual success, but we will lift up our entire commonwealth in the process."

Shapiro is calling for the largest increase in basic education funding — the largest stream of state dollars to the state's 500 local school districts — in Pennsylvania history.

His budget includes a $1.1 billion dollar increase in that funding, including a more than $70.7 million increase for Berks County schools. It is the second straight year the governor called for a historic increase in basic education funding.

A large chunk of the increase included in Shapiro's budget proposal — about $900 million — would come through a new adequacy formula. The formula would be set up to direct dollars to historically underfunded districts in an attempt to address issues of financial inequity.

Shapiro said the idea is a response to a state Supreme Court ruling that deemed Pennsylvania's education funding system unconstitutional and based on research done by a Basic Education Funding Commission.

In Berks, the adequacy formula would bring more than $60 million to local districts. The largest chunk of that would be nearly $39 million for the Reading School District.

Shaprio's budget proposal also calls for an increase in special education funding. He is calling for an additional $50 million investment in that area, which would include a nearly $3 million increase for Berks districts.

The governor is also looking to continue to provide funding to make sure classrooms are safe and healthy. His budget proposal calls for $50 million for school safety and security improvements, as well as $300 million in funding for environmental repair projects in school buildings.

Other education-related aspects of the governor's budget proposal include:

—Establishing a universal rate that school districts pay to cover tuition of students attending cyber charter schools. Districts currently pay a rate based on their own per-student spending, which leads to different districts paying different rates for students to attend the same school.

—A $32 million increase for the Pre-K Counts program that provides funding for children in low-income families to attend pre-kindergarten programs. The increase brings the total funding for the program to just over $302 million.

—The creation by the Department of Education of a digital literacy toolkit for teachers and parents to address the "half-truths, prejudices and propaganda" kids are being fed online daily.

—Creating a voucher program that would allow students at low-performing schools to attend another school, including private and religious schools. Shapiro attempted to create the program last year, but it was dropped as part of negotiations to pass the 2023-24 state budget.

State education organizations applaud governor

Officials from state education organizations expressed excitement and gratitude about the governor's budget proposal.

"The governor's budget proposal is a historic first step toward delivering what our public schools need to provide the public education that our constitution requires," Pennsylvania State Education Association President Aaron Chapin said. "This is a solid beginning to a multiyear process, and we're very pleased that this is one of Gov. Shapiro's top priorities.

"We absolutely must make these critical investments in our public schools, students, educators and support staff, and we can't allow anything to distract us from doing it."

The leader of the state's largest teachers union also applauded the governor's proposed funding for school buildings and facilities, saying, "Students should learn, and educators and support professionals should work, in safe and healthy environments."

One area where the PSEA didn't support Shapiro was in his call for a voucher program.

"Policymakers shouldn't even think about funding scholarships for private and religious schools," he said. "Our public school funding system is so broken that it is unconstitutional. Fixing it to provide a thorough and efficient system of public education needs to be our highest priority."

A statement from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association offered support for Shapiro's budget proposal.

"The Pennsylvania School Boards Association is optimistic about the proposed investment of (nearly) $1.8 billion in public education included in Gov. Shapiro's second budget address," it read.

The PSBA statement said the investment the governor is calling for shows that he has listened to school leaders who have spoken about the critical needs of public schools.

"PSBA stands ready to work with the administration and general assembly throughout the budget process to enact funding and policy changes that will not only bring Pennsylvania's education funding into compliance with the state constitution, but also provide a high-quality education for the 1.7 million students who attend a public school," the statement reads.

Local education leaders encouraged

Dr. Joseph Macharola, Muhlenberg School District superintendent effusive in his praise of Shapiro.

"I am very happy with this governor," he said following Shapiro's budget address. "What he is doing now is truly an investment."

Macharola said that over the years governor after governor has tried to find ways to fix the state's inequitable education funding. Time after time, they failed.

Shapiro's plan to introduce an adequacy formula, he said, makes him hopeful this time things will be different.

Macharola also supported the governor's proposal to create a digital literacy toolkit, saying that it's much needed.

"We live in the misinformation age, our children are bombarded with misinformation," he said. "Our kids are just hit with incredibly distorted viewpoints that are meant to harm."

When it comes to creating a voucher program, however, Macharola departed from the governor's stance. He said that cyber school tuitions should be a separate line item in the state budget, one that doesn't take funding away from traditional public schools.

"I still don't understand why they're stealing from Peter to pay Paul," he said.

Like Macharola, Dr. Jennifer Murray, Reading School District superintendent, said she was pleased with the budget proposal, particularly the historic increase in basic education funding.

"'We welcome Gov. Shapiro's emphasis on prioritizing education in his budget proposal," she said. "The acknowledgment of the unconstitutional and inequitable funding system is a crucial step towards ensuring a fair and quality education for all students in Pennsylvania.

"The proposed investments, especially the substantial increase in funding for underfunded districts and for school construction and infrastructure upgrades, reflect a positive commitment to rectify historical disparities."

Other local superintendents also voiced support for the budget proposal.

"Gov. Shapiro has recognized the unconstitutional level of funding to public schools and is looking to build upon last year's progress," said Thomas Voelker, Daniel Boone School District superintendent. "The impact of unfunded mandates on a school district has been crippling; however, this proposed budgetary increase of approximately $1.1 billion for basic education funding would go a long way in relieving some of the tax burden that has too often fallen to our local communities."

Voelker said he is particularly excited to see the governor addressing issues such as special education, capping cyber charter school costs, school safety and security, student mental health, early childhood education, and addressing workforce shortage.

"It is clear Gov. Shapiro understands the causation between a quality education and the future health of the commonwealth," he said.

Dr. Christy Haller, Exeter School District superintendent, said she and her team watched the governor's budget address with interest, but cautioned his plan is merely a proposal and the Legislature will ultimately craft the state's budget.

"It is evident from Gov. Shapiro's remarks that he is committed to providing much-needed additional funding for education," she said. "However, it is difficult to become overly excited about his proposals as we have seen time and time again the unwillingness of legislators to work together to invest in our state's greatest asset: our children."

Dr. Chris Trickett, Wilson School District superintendent, said he believes the governor's budget proposal, if enacted, would have a significant impact on schools across Pennsylvania.

"Given the current education and economic landscape, we welcome the potential increase in state funding to tackle the escalating expenses associated with supporting and educating students," he said. "This holds particular significance for institutions like the Wilson School District, where enrollment continues to climb."

Trickett said the funding included in the governor's proposal would go a long way towards addressing ongoing issues like student mental health, while at the same time alleviating the financial strain placed on local taxpayers.

"We commend Gov. Shapiro for continuing to prioritize public education," he said.

Andrew Potteiger, Brandywine Heights School District superintendent, said the governor's support of education is commendable, and that his proposed budget leaves him hopeful.

"The continued investment into basic education funding, mental health, safety and security, in conjunction with special education supports, will help relieve the tremendous burden on the local revenue budgets of school districts," he said.

Potteiger said school districts are feeling the same financial pain that's being felt everywhere, the result of ongoing inflation.

"Costs of goods and services continue to rise beyond the ability to raise taxes to cover those gaps," he said. "This puts the budgeting process in a unique predicament to cover the routine personnel costs, contract costs, special education costs and necessary purchases to educate our students while being mindful of our taxpayers."